Ian Johnson reviews four scholarly works on religion in modern China in the New York Review of Books, 22 December 2011. Some highlights:
"It’s no exaggeration to say that China is in the grip of a religious revival analogous to America’s Great Awakening in the nineteenth century (which also took place during a time of great social upheaval). By some measures, more Chinese (60 to 80 million) now go to church every Sunday than all the congregations of Western Europe put together, while China is now the world’s biggest Buddhist nation. Meanwhile, indigenous belief systems, such as folk religion or redemptive societies like Yiguanddao, are making a comeback."
The state still engages in suppression of religious activities, writes Johnson, yet: "Unregistered 'house churches,' once quasi-underground groups, sometimes approach the scale of American mega-churches. I went to an Easter service in Beijing this year that filled an auditorium. The pastor outlined his sermon with a PowerPoint presentation while a dancing choir kept people’s eyes riveted on stage. Daoism, China’s only indigenous religion, is also growing fast, with thousands of temples once labeled 'superstitious' now reopening."
In God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, dissident journalist Liao Yiwu, who spent for years in prison for criticizing the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, emphasizes "the faith that sustained Christians during their years of persecution. His book has many stories of imprisonment and torture but also inspiring tales of perseverance. It is impossible to read them without being appalled by their heroes’ fate while also admiring their fortitude."
Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity by in Modern Chinaby Lian Xi "goes back to the Qing dynasty to explain how Christianity was initially rejected by most Chinese and took hold only with the rise of indigenous Christian leaders, such as Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng) and Wang Mingdao. It was these pioneers who enabled Christianity to survive persecution and become the thriving 'house church' movement of today. And in an interesting twist of history, it was the foreign denominations—Presbyterian, Methodist, and Anglican—that the Communists eventually united after 1949 into their state-controlled churches....
"This history hasn’t been told so authoritatively in a Western language before...."
Finally, on the political significance of the growth of Christianity, Johnson writes: "...Most Christians are apolitical, saying they incorporate traditional Chinese values of upright living, filial piety, and hard work. And yet it’s no coincidence that a hugely disproportionate number of political activists are Christian, especially the weiquan, or 'rights-defending' lawyers, who take on politically sensitive cases."